Why there are so few scientists in politics

By Michael Edmonds 28/03/2011 14


I used to think that Parliament would be a better place if it had more scientifically trained politicians, but have watched the furore occurring around Darren Hughes and the Labour party, I think I see why very few politicians have scientific training – the thought processes needed for each career are diametrically opposed.

Scientists train to be as objective as they can be, to remove as much bias as is possible from their experiments. Facts are the currency of science. Politicians, however, realise that when it comes to dealing with people, emotions are an effective way of swaying public opinion. Personal attacks, innuendo and rumour are all part of the game.  In politics perception is everything. Opinions are the currency of politics.

This is not to say that politicking does not occur in scientific organisations. I learnt this fairly early in my PhD. However, in the practice of science, when you are working in the lab, it is the facts and not opinion that are important.

For a scientist to enter the world of politics he or she has to be prepared to turn his/her back on the thought processes that are central to science. This is not a choice I could see myself making.


14 Responses to “Why there are so few scientists in politics”

  • Absolutely:
    1. Twisting data to suit one’s needs.
    2. Ignoring facts to promote one’s worldview
    3. Flat-out lying about facts to push policy through.

    All things attributed to politicians, and hopefully rarely to scientists.

  • Not so fast. In my experience the key attribute of a politician is to be able to respond according to who the audience is.
    If the audience is the great unwashed, then the emotional manipulation tools are brought into play.
    On the other hand I have heard politicians in more private settings display strong intellect and great objectivity, with due respect for data and facts. Many of them are very impressive, in my opinion.
    On the other hand you wonder how some of them got selected as candidates in the first place.

  • An interesting point, kemo sabe,

    One could argue that in private settings that strong intellect and great objectivity HAVE to be used because the audience in this setting can spot emotional manipulation.
    Also, the effective use of emotional manipulation often requires strong intellectual ability, just tends to fail when it comes to intellectual honesty.

    “On the other hand you wonder how some of them got selected as candidates in the first place.”
    Two possible answers for this
    1) the other candidates in the electorate were even worse.
    2) the candidate is likely to have a high profile in caucus, and therefore can act in the favour of his or her electorate (i.e. with bias)

  • But ‘kemo sabe’ means ‘trusted scout’ in Apache, apparently.

    @ eviltwit
    Absolutely:
    1. Twisting data to suit one’s needs.
    2. Ignoring facts to promote one’s worldview
    3. Flat-out lying about facts to push policy through.

    All things attributed to politicians, and hopefully rarely to scientists.

    But not rarely in the case of university managements, I’m afraid to say. Just see how the lower-ranked universities explain away their performance in the PBRF. And how they market courses to school leavers, knowing perfectly well that the ensuing qualification has little real value.

  • “Just see how the lower-ranked universities explain away their performance in the PBRF.”

    An interesting comment. care to expand on that? What defines a “lower-ranked” university?

  • I’m a scientist and I’ve twice stood for parliament (for a party currently in parliament).
    I think this post is twaddle. “Diametrically opposed!” is an overstatement. It is true that come election time politicians deal in sound bites, innuendo, and try and win votes through fear (eg Winston Peters on immigration) or greed. Interestingly, they all promote the myth of progress (“vote for us and things will get better”), which was established during the enlightenment, strengthened by Darwin’s theory and the technological success of science. However, most of the work of a politician is done out of sight of the public in committees with other politicians, in consultation with ministry officials, or one on one with constituents. Observing this I note that they are all very much interested in evidence. The scientists ability to discern the quality of evidence would be to the fore in such situations – indeed, there are times that it is sorely missed. Having said that, the politician must also continually make cost-benefit analyses on possible decisions, legislation, alliances etc. At times these may seem to fly in the face of the evidence. That, though, is the cost of staying in business and trying to bring about a “greater good” in some other area or at a latter stage.

    My beef with scientists and politics is that they tend to stand on the sidelines and throw stones. Not helpful and annoys the politicians no end (maybe a reason for the continued underfunding of science in NZ?). We have unprecedented access to politicians in this country and could all speak with our local MP. We may join a party and help with assessment of evidence. This can have real impact in policy formation (I speak from experience).

  • “I think this post is twaddle”

    If you think this post is twaddle then why do your subsequent comments seem to agree with what I wrote?
    e.g. ” It is true that come election time politicians deal in sound bites, innuendo, and try and win votes through fear”

    The very fact that a politician has to “continually make cost-benefit analyses on possible decisions, legislation, alliances etc. At times these may seem to fly in the face of the evidence. That, though, is the cost of staying in business and trying to bring about a “greater good” in some other area or at a latter stage” is the antithesis to how science works.(Though it could be argued that it is not much different from the politics of science departments).

    If you have taken this post as a criticism of politics, that was not the intention. Rather it is an attempt to point out that the worlds of politics and science are very different, and a scientist who moved into politics would have to develop a very different skill set. Would you not agree? As someone who has explored both worlds your perspective is quite unique.

  • kiwiski,

    ” “Diametrically opposed!” is an overstatement.”

    Probably a fair call. You have obviously managed to deal with both worlds.
    From my personal perspective, I find it frustrating when even small amounts of politicking or emotive manipulation occur in my workplace.

  • Michael
    I mean ‘lower ranked’ according to the PBRF league table. When the results are announced you will find statements like ‘in four subject areas we were ranked in the top three in the country’, and other such spin-doctor nonsense.
    The PBRF by its very nature encourages this sort of thing, and the universities fall for it.
    What they should say is eg ‘we have 5 staff teaching anthropology, none of them is ‘A’ rated, and we are ranked fifth out of seven for research in this subject’.

  • Ah, I see.
    Though I would disagree with the suggestion that that universities “fall” from it. From what I’ve seen most play the game rather vigorously. I think there are at least two universities in NZ that claim they are the highest ranked university by the PBRF, but then that is all about marketing and not about science.
    You last statement is nice and clear and simple, which is why I think most of the marketing departments at unversities would look at it in horror. Though I don’t think it would be necessary to list the actual grades of the staff – there is too much inconsistency between disciplines for this to serve as a useful measure in my opinion.
    Also, from a teaching perspective is a universities PBRF rating relevant at the undergraduate level?

  • There is a school of thought which says that high PBRF in a subject=poor teaching at undergraduate level. It may be true some of the time at least. Hard thing to measure.

    All the data about PBRF results including staff gradings are published after each round. The universities take the data and mangle it to suit themselves. They must be closet politicians!